The Name It, Change It campaign has been a big deal this election season, helped in no small part because feminist-minded folks are fed up with sexist attacks on female candidates. But Amanda Hess has an interesting take on the whole issue today that’s worth discussing. Not to get all “what about the menz?!” on you, but it’s an important question. What about sexist attacks on men?
The WaPo has put together a compendium of sexist attacks on male candidates this election, some from female candidates happy to play the “mean girl” role, and some from male candidates channeling their own junior high school homosocial shaming tactics. Male candidates and female candidates who get this kind of sexist shaming tend to be getting the same flavor—apparently, a favorite way to attack both men and women is to feminize them. Women are shamed for doing female-identified things like wearing high heels or having breasts, or they’re told to get back in the kitchen or they have their sexuality used against them. Male candidates get feminized, too—told to “man up”, that they don’t have “cojones”, or to “get your man pants on”.
Amanda interviewed Siobhan “Sam” Bennett, the president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, and she said this:
What Bennett does know is that accusations of deficient manliness “are rooted in a tradition of sexism against women” in politics, she says, “whether a woman lobs it at a man, a man lobs it at a woman, or a man lobs it at a man.” When a candidate infers that manliness is a requirement for political office, female politicians everywhere suffer a hit. “It’s the same woman-bashing form of sexism, just sliced a different way,” Bennett says.
And when men are attacked in a misogynist way, more targeted sexist attacks against women are allowed to thrive. “It reinforces the normalization of this way of talking, and that’s our big enemy,” Bennett says. “It definitely hurts women candidates, no matter who’s throwing it around.”
It’s bad for the candidates that suffer it, bad for other candidates (especially female candidates), and frankly it’s just bad for our democracy. This election is hardly an outlier. For my entire lifetime, achieving some level of projected manliness has been considered an important attribute in a candidate. It’s basically making all stupider every election season. There is no reason that a man’s ability to wear a cowboy hat or a jumpsuit should make him a better leader. And yes, the more that “manliness” is considered a critical character trait of politicians, the more women will be shut out. Or to be more specific, it’s not that women can’t run or win, it’s just that they always have to walk this tightrope between appearing feminine but not too feminine, acting tough but not too tough, etc. It’s too much of a balancing act. Even right wing women pulling the “mama grizzlies” thing, where they get their girl points by dressing up but get their man points by being assholes mostly fail at this balancing act.
“Manliness” as a concept is mostly toxic in our culture, especially when someone’s trying to be a leader in a democratic society. You get man points by being intolerant, ignorant, and unsympathetic, as well as by wearing a bunch of silly costumes. The reason right wingers routinely attack Democrats for lack of manliness is that liberalism on any level is viewed as permanently unmanly—having a heart, reading books, and getting along with others are all considered poisonous and feminine. Having a political system that’s build around who can be the biggest dick and get away with it isn’t good for anyone.
This isn’t anti-man. I think in general that the concepts of masculinity that permeate our culture are nearly as damaging to men as to women. (I say “nearly”, because the women who get the worst brunt of men swimming in toxic masculinity are rape victims, sexual harassment victims, and domestic violence victims.) Men are expected to shut off the best parts of themselves to prove themselves as men, and to make it worse, there’s never a point in the masculinity wars where you’ve proven yourself enough. The only real option not to be constantly stressing is to let it go and feel comfortable in your own skin. But there is non-stop pressure on men not to ever be comfortable, much less emotional and intellectual.
And so yes, every time a candidate makes cracks about “cojones” or “man pants”, that’s a problem. For female candidates, male candidates, the democratic system, and our larger culture.